By Other Means

Well done, Mr. Secretary!

Well done, Mr. Secretary!

Finally! The Pentagon today announced that the ban on women in combat positions will be lifted.

It’s about time. The prohibition on women in combat served no useful role. Instead, it devalued the vital role already played by women in military service, and stood as a barrier to advancement for women seeking leadership positions in the military.

I’ve written about this before, and don’t have much that’s new to say, so I’ll just give some short excerpts from a 2005 Los Angeles Times column I wrote on women in combat, and a more recent piece published here in Foreign Policy.

In 2005, I looked at some of the reasons usually given by those who opposed letting women play combat roles:

"Women aren’t big and strong enough for combat." I’ll buy this when someone explains why the Marine Corps will cheerfully accept a 4-foot-10 male recruit who weighs 96 pounds.

Sure, the Marines will make a man out of him, but even if they water the guy with Miracle-Gro, they won’t be able to turn him into a 6-footer. The average man may be bigger and stronger than the average woman, but plenty of women are bigger and stronger than many men. Why discriminate based on gender when you could have straightforward, task-specific strength requirements?

In any case, in a war that mixes high-tech weaponry with low-tech hazards, being big and strong isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You don’t need to be big and strong to fly a modern combat jet, and size won’t help when you’re up against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. Why do we believe that bigger people make better soldiers? In Vietnam, an army of big, strong American men fought an army of small, slender Vietnamese men — and lost….

"We can’t let women into combat because they might get killed." They surely will, but so what? Women die in car accidents and from heart attacks, but though these deaths too are cause for sorrow, we still let women ride in cars and super-size their fries….

In contrast to the bogus arguments against women in combat, there are strong arguments in favor. Locking women out of combat positions makes it harder for women to advance within the military, limiting their opportunities to attain more prestigious jobs and higher salaries. This in turn hurts their families and increases gender inequalities in society as a whole.

Denying women the opportunity to take on combat roles also reduces their future ability to shape national policy. In the post-9/11 world, credibility on military and security issues is increasingly necessary for those who hope to succeed in important public positions — and if only men can occupy combat roles, that gives them a substantial edge.

With the rise of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, the distinction between "front" and "rear" has eroded. In Iraq, women in noncombat military jobs, such as escorting cargo convoys or serving as military police, are in harm’s way….Women will die alongside men in any terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and women, like men, are affected by our national defense policies. It’s time to give them the right to fight for their country.

These aren’t the only reasons to cheer the end of rules prohibiting women in combat MOS’s. In the age of the all-volunteer military, the services constantly struggle to attract and retain people with the character and skills necessary for military success. Even with planned force reductions, it will still be tough to get the right people. This is all the more true as we look ahead to the challenges of the future. As I wrote in September,

The U.S. military will need people with technical experience and scientific know-how. It will also need people with foreign language and regional expertise and an anthropological cast of mind — people who can operate comfortably and effectively surrounded by foreigners. And in the 24-7 media environment — the era of the strategic corporal — the military will, above all, need people with maturity and good judgment.

These days, women are increasingly outperforming men in many areas: They’re more likely to enter and finish college, for instance, and to get better grades while there. If our goal is to recruit the smart, mature, and well-educated people into the military, why would we want to have rules discriminating against half the eligible population — particularly when it’s such a highly-performing half?

So three cheers for Leon Panetta. His tenure as defense secretary has been brief, and for the most part he’s been stuck with the thankless task of pushing for sensible budget cuts. With this announcement, though, Panetta has ensured his place in history: He’ll be the defense secretary who removed the final bar to equal opportunity in military service. Well done, Mr. Secretary.